I’ve been on a classics-reading tear lately. First it was Frankenstein, then The Count of Monte Cristo. Why? My mom (former high school and junior college English teacher) had taught Frankenstein, so I was intrigued, then I remembered that someone whose taste I’d unhesitatingly deem as infallible considered Monte Cristo as one of his favorites. Let’s rewind the clock 200 years, dash about Europe on horse-drawn carriage, sailboat, and leather boot, and sink into a narrative style mom calls “lugubrious.”
Well, I’m partial to the sentiment-laden tenor of “lugubrious.” The word itself feels like something slow, deliberate, and ornate (hmmm – I’ve been told I speak that way…) – it’s a word we could use to describe the process a landscape undertakes over millions of years in transforming from plain to mountain, or expanse of ocean into smoking volcano 10,000 feet high. Something methodical, imperceptible to the naked eye – even over the course of a lifetime. Changes that can only be accounted for after the passing of so many generations that we can’t trace the line back to the original observer.
Quick side note: the line – the single line – where the Monster in Frankenstein comes to life (he doesn’t have a name, in case you – like me – were wondering) is simply arresting in its understated horror. Reading the book made me want to hang out with Mary Shelley and her crew on the storm-battered shores of Lake Geneva, playing their game of scary story one-upmanship. Honestly I think they were the definition of hip.
One thing that I can relate to in these stories is the sense of loneliness experienced by their pro(an?)tagonists – Frankenstein’s Monster rejected by society for the sheer ghastliness of his physical form (though not his diction – in fact he is quite eloquent!), Edmond Dantes unjustly sent to a dungeon for 14 years in Monte Cristo. I’ve had my spells of teenage introversion to draw from; I’ve also done a few solo bike tours – once through the very same Alps over which Frankenstein’s Monster bounded. If anything, I can appreciate the Romantic spirit of the adventurer; the search for new landscapes (the narrator of Frankenstein quoted above) coupled with the unflinching look inwards, the discovery (slow, imperceptible to the naked eye) of who we are and the frightening prospect we all face in determining our purpose.
(Speaking of classics – I read Crime and Punishment while cycling through the Spanish Pyrenees and Moby Dick as I wended my way betwixt fog and brilliant sun down the Oregon and California coast. Maybe this is a new business venture I should consider! Classics on Wheels…)
The one place, however, where I get to really experience that deep loneliness is in my work as a school leader. I don’t say that in the spirit of soliciting sympathy (though hugs are always welcome – and as anyone knows that has worked with me, I’m good at giving them) – it’s just a statement of fact. As a teacher I had 70-80 colleagues doing just what I was doing, in the place I was doing it, at the same time. As a leader? One or two. This is a challenging transition, one that makes some in leadership positions into masters of keeping up appearances (“Just keep everyone happy!!!!”) while others simply get mad and lead mad – or sad.
Despite this sense of “being apart” (both in the function of what I do and in the authority I wield, if you will) I continue to choose to work in formal leadership. It is tempting to return to teaching, to have the creative freedom to make new things every day with my students, to try out new ideas, to ebb and flow with their energy, to build something memorable for them to draw from for possibly the rest of their lives. Despite the temptation, I also shudder at the idea of working under a crappy leader. (How do I know I’m not crappy? Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I publish what my staff has to say about me in an anonymous survey)
Working with – and guiding – adults isn’t quite like that…and it shouldn’t be. Adults aren’t as impressionable because we have more experience. Because our brains have pretty much firmed up. Because 30,000 years ago we were all dead by 40. But working with adults requires a fortitude – and a restraint – that truly test our limits: the 100 mile day alone on a bicycle; the 14 years alone in a dungeon. So to whom do I turn to maintain a sense of optimism and play – despite the dismissiveness of adult expertise I experience from time to time, the adult fear of disrupted comfort?
Photo of Richard Diebenkorn by Rose Mandel
Painter Richard Diebenkorn’s “Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting” are the only words displayed in my office. As a painter myself, I have an affinity for Diebenkorn – yet his words to me are more far-reaching and powerful. Two of his thoughts help me through each day at work: “Tolerate chaos” and “Keep thinking about Pollyanna.”
In channeling Pollyanna’s rosy outlook on life, I don’t think Diebenkorn is proposing that it’s all bacon donuts and lollipops (actually, that’s an awful sounding combination!). Starting with a blank canvas is a struggle; leading is a struggle; living life is a struggle, despite our riches (The Count of Monte Cristo!), despite our troves of friends. What he’s saying is that we need to see the struggle as a part of that imperceptible shift in the landscape – the first fiery ember emerging from the ocean eventually becomes Mauna Loa. We need to orient our psyche to anticipate positive outcome from that struggle. At it’s most fundamental this feels like an intrinsic part of our survival mechanism.
It’s what teachers do every day with their students…and what leaders must do in working with the adults around them. The leader must remember:
- The person whose behavior challenges you is also doing great things. Remember that you want others to recognize the good things you are doing despite your mistakes – so whom have you recognized lately?
- Agreement isn’t the key to a positive culture; commitment to each other and the BIGGER purpose that binds us is. And that means staying committed to always questioning our own ideas, harboring a touch of skepticism about our own voice and perspective as they are naturally biased and don’t represent the full complexity of the matter at hand.
Reading Moby Dick while riding down the California coast…how lonely the White Whale?
It is natural for us to dwell on the negative. We could see someone do 100 good deeds – but how would we feel if we saw them kick a defenseless kitten? As school leaders we see and hear about virtually all of the bad decisions and raw emotions from kids and adults (draining!); in choosing to orient ourselves toward positivity we comprehend – from a deepening well of empathy – that these missteps are simply a part of being human. Our greatest contribution as leaders may be in continuing to reach out to those that challenge us the most – those that have given us good reason to be angry. Kids look for that in adults all the time: Will they still respect and love me despite my mistake?
Cultivating deep optimism does not entail turning a blind eye to the tensions around us; it does not mean sprinkling glitter on gaping challenges – or outright injustice – and dismissing them as trifles or distractions. Our optimism can in fact find a deep well of nourishment in addressing these challenges head on – walking into the fire instead of away from it.
It doesn’t mean faking it or lacking integrity. I think what it means is that we are willing to believe in someone’s capacity to make important contributions to our organizations despite the reasons they’ve given us – and our communities – to see them in a diminished light. We could say this about the whole of Education as well: “I struggle with aspects of your behavior – and I believe in your potential to be great.”
Education’s slow, imperceptible shifts are difficult to sit through – we work so hard only to feel like the true transformations will come when we’re long gone! But what if the transformation is all around us now? What if we chose to take up an unceasing narrative of the countless joyous moments our students experience across the globe every day?
What if you stepped outside of your self-imposed dungeon to listen to children laughing? What if you took joy in a disagreement with a colleague – disagreement as the first step to creating something new and fresh? Optimism as our greatest strength, the shining buoy for us to hold onto in the the storm. As Edmond Dantes says in Monte Cristo:”Wait and hope!”
I’ve recently come across the absolutely wonderful blog of Aussie @debsnet – just a month ago she also looked to Pollyanna as a cue to consider the world around us with “gratitude, awe and delight.” It’s a beautiful post!
In 2015 I will continue to look to those words hanging on my office wall to help me reach through the fog of the difficult moments I know will emerge, and I will continue to be buoyed by the creative, generous, forward-thinking spirit of my growing network of educators and thinkers.